How to avoid falling into a rut after getting tenured (opinion)
In recent years, it has become more difficult than ever to acquire a tenure-track position at a major university, as colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track positions with non-tenure-track positions, and the number number of candidates for existing positions increases every year. As a result, the bar continues to rise, and in some areas it has become almost impossible to find a permanent position. Young faculty members regard a permanent job as the holy grail and often work tirelessly to obtain one. Yet when academics finally get a permanent job, it too often turns out not to be as enjoyable as they expected, and many end up unhappy.
One of the ironies of academia is that we professors spend a lot of time helping our students plan their careers, but often don’t put much effort into planning ours. Academics should have a career strategy designed to maximize their value to the colleges and universities they work for. Most of the time, such a career path will also prove rewarding on a personal level.
Some teachers are lucky and have trusted friends who can help them make sensible decisions about how to allocate their most precious resource: their time. But many don’t, and instead spend their entire careers teaching the same classes and writing papers similar to those they wrote as doctoral students. Once a faculty member is tenured, the incentives to be creative and hardworking may be weak. Many established academics see their careers flounder because they fail to keep up to date after tenure and don’t work hard to find new, productive uses for their time.
Two common mistakes underlie this problem: faculty members do not spend enough time thinking about the potential future options they will have in their careers. And even if they have ideas about where their careers should go, they don’t invest enough in human capital to pursue them.
At most major universities, research is the predominant focus of most junior faculty, especially those who eventually achieve tenure. Many faculty members continue to devote most of their time after tenure to their research; they must continually invest in their human capital to stay up to date with the latest methods, what has been learned from the literature, and what are the hot and interesting issues. But a number of other options can also lead to rewarding and productive careers. These options include writing textbooks, university administration, consulting with the private or government sectors, and becoming a public intellectual. They can all be enjoyable ways to build a career.
Academics are not randomly selected from the population. They self-select, almost always because they enjoy learning and are fascinated by the field they choose to study. They have consistently been excellent students all their lives and most likely could have had more lucrative opportunities rather than a PhD. Scholars begin their careers with a desire to spend their lives shifting the frontier of the knowledge they choose to study and teach others. They are smart, hardworking people who are happiest when they contribute to the organizations they work for.
Yet I’ve always been surprised at how many tenured professors become bitter about their position. Being a full professor is the dream job of most people entering graduate school, and those who have made it have spent countless hours working toward it. How can so many people who get their dream job be so unhappy about it? Why couldn’t they have done something to make them happier at work?
There are a number of sources underlying this bitterness. Establishment, which is a great success, also limits mobility. Other universities, which usually have a full complement of full professors, may be reluctant to make tenure offers to outsiders. Most faculty members who gain tenure at a university end up staying there for the rest of their careers. If the faculty member likes their colleagues and the location is a good fit for the person and their family, it can be a wonderful way to spend their life. But sometimes they don’t get along with their colleagues or don’t care about the city. Personality clashes can escalate over time and grudges can last for many years, especially when two faculty members remain reluctant colleagues for a long time.
The problem is compounded by the fact that relatively young researchers, often non-tenured or recently tenured, tend to conduct the most important research. They may have more up-to-date skill sets, be more aware of recent developments in the field, and have stronger incentives to produce impactful scholarship. Older professors who do not stay current with their research or add value in other dimensions may receive poor teaching assignments and fewer resources (summer money, access to research assistants , etc.). Having nurtured young teachers throughout their careers, older teachers may end up resentful.
Take control of your life
The sad reality is that this situation is entirely preventable. Anyone smart enough to get a Ph.D. and earning tenure is capable of being a valuable member of the faculty throughout his or her career. Academics are almost always bright, hard-working academics when they graduate and get tenure. And if you’re one of those people, you’ll be much happier in the long run if you find a niche, keep doing meaningful work, and contribute to your institution and society throughout your life.
This interesting work could be new research, but it doesn’t have to be. Many other types of opportunities can also become important parts of an academic’s professional life, and you should always think of ways to branch out to do new things. Most of us entered academia because we love to learn ourselves and also to help others learn. We are not happy if we are not contributing to the world around us. The antidote to bitterness is often generosity.
Some professors continue to focus on research throughout their careers, some even become more interested in it as they get older and better understand their field. An important skill to have if you want to be productive for a long time is the ability to always be forward-looking. To be influential, a research project must be one that people care about years after it is published rather than when it is written, so a researcher must try to envision the literature as it will be in the future rather than as it is today. . You won’t always be right, but by focusing your efforts on areas with growth potential rather than “today’s hot topics,” your work is more likely to have lasting impact.
That said, since research output peaks in the youth of most academics, it’s important to have a plan to keep your life interesting even if your research slows down. Some professors move into administration as they get older, which is a great way to contribute to a university. Others are more enthusiastic about teaching. Counseling students can be particularly rewarding, especially when counseling leads to a faculty member forming a lasting bond with a student. Some scholars write textbooks and teach additional courses, sometimes for additional pay. Some become public intellectuals who contribute to public discourse in their area of expertise. Consulting is yet another way for an academic to keep life interesting. Establishing yourself as an expert in a particular area in high demand by the private sector or government can lead to a rewarding and profitable business.
If you focus your professional life on one of these options, or others, you can avoid falling into a rut and not enjoying your professional life. But pursuing them requires an investment of your time and effort. For example, to remain capable of conducting cutting-edge research, you need to keep abreast of the latest techniques and issues that are of interest to others. Similarly, earning income through additional instruction requires an initial investment in developing a new, distinct course and marketing it. To become a successful administrator, you must demonstrate your interest in the positions to be filled. Taking on a less visible position, such as serving as deputy head of a small program in your department or advising a group of students, is important as a way to gain experience and pave the way for becoming possibly head of department or dean. And consulting opportunities don’t usually appear out of thin air. An academic who wants to start a consulting business typically needs to grow it over time by investing in specialist knowledge that practitioners are willing to pay for and cultivating relationships with industry professionals who will enable them to leverage that knowledge. .
As a researcher, you should learn early in your career that academic life can be characterized by the phrase “You are the CEO of your own life”. You’ll be happier if you pursue your career with purpose, rather than just drifting off to whatever feels interesting at the time. You should spend time thinking about what your options are likely to be in the future, as well as the human capital investments you will need to make to pursue the options you find attractive. Investments that will make your life more interesting in the future are probably well worth their cost.